gentle elitism

Classics Can Be Entertainment, Too

Quite often, when we read a classic, we use phrases such as “It was a difficult book to read, but it had such depth that it was worth it.”  The problem often seems to be that archaic language combined with sentence and paragraph structures that are no longer in fashion, as well as the fact that some of the contemporary references are obscure to modern readers make it difficult to enjoy the flow of the narrative first time around.

Many scholars approve of this.  If the classics are available to all, they think, then anyone can read them.  While we’re often in complete agreement with this point of view (we like our elitism) it’s also nice when a classic is accessible to all.

The Three Musketeers Engraving

One such work is The Three Musketeers.  It’s one classic book where watching the film becomes completely unnecessary to modern readers, as the text itself is nonstop action and adventure, wrapped in the respectability that comes with reading a 19th century novel.  And it’s French, too.  It’s the perfect way to pretend to be an intellectual without having to suffer through something like Middlemarch.  It’s not one of those books you read just to say you’ve done it.

The reasons for this are twofold…  Let’s start with the least obvious.

If you’re reading the book in English, then you’re reading a translation from the original French.  While translations can be much more tortuous than the original (read Chapman’s Homer if you don’t believe me), as the world advances, translators have realized (thank whatever deity you happen to worship) that a translation is not an opportunity for them to dazzle us with their writing but a chance to make the authors intent shine through.

That means translated books are often written in cleaner language than the original, and also in more modern form (especially if the translation is relatively new), both of which make the original more accessible.

The Three Musketeers First Edition Title Page

I think one of the great beneficiaries of this trend is Borges.  In the original Spanish, you don’t just have to deal with the difficult ideas that old Jorge Luis liked to play with, but also the intentionally erudite language he employed.  The English translations I’ve seen of his work are much more accessible.

I don’t know enough French to be able to say whether the same thing has happened to Dumas, but based on my English-language reading, I think it’s likely.

The second reason is the obvious one.  The story actually has a plot in which interesting things happen.  While introspection and character growth are very rewarding, they do not make for entertainment.  The Three Musketeers shows a lot of character traits, and even traces their evolution, but it doesn’t sacrifice a roaring good tale to do so.  Instead, it weaves these details into the tapestry of the plot.

In fact, a surprising number of the great classics–those anointed by the classicists of the prewar eras as opposed to the unfortunate and blinkered modernists, and their ridiculous postmodernist successors–seem to adhere to this formula, which begs the question: will some of the existential books we are supposed to revere today still receive any sort of recognition in fifty years time?

I doubt it.  But one thing I’m sure of is that generations of readers will be enjoying The Three Musketeers and that Hollywood will be cranking out reboots of the story every couple of years or so (happily, Brian Adams should be retired by then).


Food Scares in the 21st Century – and the misguided, albeit well-meaning people who propagate them


For a certain kind of activist, and for many people who get their news through social media (and worse, believe what they read on other people’s feeds), this is possibly the dirtiest word on the planet.

frankenfood propaganda 2

But Monsanto is actually just a symbol.  An easy-to-point-to enemy that represents the terrible evil that is the genetically modified food industry.  There are many other companies, and more than one government behind the scenes, involved in the same debate.

The anti GMO activists are well organized and have learned to use powerful words such as Frankenfood to use consumers’ ignorance and fear against them.  This isn’t really the fault of consumers, of course.  Most people won’t have the time–or, let’s be honest, the interest–to do any kind of research around genetically modified foods, so if someone says that Frankenfoods are bad for you, they will buy it hook, line and sinker.

Another thing working in the activists favor is that eco-groups such as Greenpeace are getting more and more respectable every day among intellectuals and postmodernist thinkers.  A statement from one of these groups creates a feeling of legitimacy behind a claim of GMO food being bad for consumers, wildlife, biodiversity, or the planet as a whole.  But mostly, and smartly, they focus their attentions on people’s self-interest and insist that GMO foods are bad for you and your family.  It’s a smart strategy because while people might be concerned about biodiversity, they won’t change their behavioral patterns because of it… but tell them they will die if they eat Frankenfoods, and they’ll go out and buy organic.

Finally, there’s the perception that GMOs are mainly used by big farming consortiums.  And everyone knows that big business is Evil (note capital “E”).  More reason to avoid them.

So the case against GMOs is pretty clear.  The question, one supposes, is what works in favor of GMOs?

Reality, mostly.

Let’s take this from the least important point first and work our way up to why people who know what they’re talking about will calmly and happily eat any GMO product you put in front of them, and feed them to their families, too.

The myth that farming corporations use GMOs and local farmers don’t is silly.  Local farmers are mostly using the same seed suppliers, but even if they are actually trying to avoid the corporate seed conglomerates, there’s no way to avoid genetically modified crops.  You see, human beings have been modifying crops and livestock through selective breeding for thousands of years.  The most basic non-GMO seed available on the planet is… not even remotely non-GMO.  So one can have one’s mind at ease regarding that particular point.

The second point that doesn’t hold up at all well is that environmentalist groups are against GMOs.  That must count for something, right?  Well… While these groups do excellent work to create conscience around important environmental issues, they are equally often overcome by the enthusiasm of extreme factions within and will often take action before the science is completely understood… simply on general principles or because they feel it is an important issue.  While one must admire their courage, this simply isn’t the right way to go about things.  Greenpeace’s stance on GMO potatoes in Mexico in the late 90s and early 2000s was a clear indication of enthusiasm overruling science.

(We take the time to point out a conspiracy theory question here.  We have no proof, so we present it for you to reach your own conclusions.  Is it just coincidence that the European Union, many of whose governments support Greenpeace, is way behind on GMO use when compared to places like the US and Latin America?  We don’t know, but tend to think it isn’t).

frankenfood propaganda

Finally, there is the science itself.  Many different disciplines argue that GMOs are one of the best things that has ever happened to humanity, but let’s choose just two.

Mathematics is the first.  And we don’t even need to go much further than the four basic operations.  It’s not in doubt that crop yields have grown thanks to the modification of seed stock, and losses to parasites have been driven down.  At the same time the population of the planet has also been growing steadily.  If you do the math, you will be able to conclude that without GMO, a good chunk of the world is now starving.  Not in countries that export food, perhaps, but how would you like to be in England without GMOs and with a new-age, enlightened and postcolonial population who won’t let you simply invade the nearest third world country and steal their crops?

For the second, let’s choose medicine.  After exhaustive research, the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that there is no evidence whatsoever that genetically modified crops pose a health risk to humans.  This article from the Alliance for Science gives an overview.  Interestingly all the people who think otherwise, including Greenpeace, were invited to give testimony.  The conclusions were unshakable.

So, in this solemn act, we hereby officially demote GMO-bashing to the level of pseudo-science.  Welcome home!  Take your place alongside astrology, homeopathic medicine and pop psychology!

Impressive Youth

One thing we see quite a bit of are posts on social media and articles on supposedly reputable news sources that express horror over the terrible literacy and writing habits of teens and young adults.  Some sources blame text messaging (LOL) while others wring their hands over the terrible decline in the educational system under either the left or the right, depending on each individual or media outlet’s political leanings.

Of course, here at Classically Educated, not only do we believe that every political party has an unfair bias against the cultural elites (which is irrelevant in this context, but we like to remind everyone of it every chance we get), but we also believe int he scientific process.

Which means that we decided to put the theory to rigorous scientific examination* to find out if all the fuss was justified.

The first thing we did was to try to track down some modern writing from young adult, maybe someone younger than 22 or 23 years of age.  Fortunately, one of our editors works with a woman who fits the bill and also enjoys doing some creative writing.  So we asked her for a story.

After reading it, we were pretty depressed.  It needed a little polish, but, other than that, the story was not only competently written and well thought out, but it the ending was brilliant.  In fact some of our editors and contributors, who are also writers wept openly and are considering giving up their word processors because if the forthcoming generations are going to write that way, we’re all pretty much doomed anyway.

More importantly, the writing was grammatically correct with not a LOL or WTF to be seen.  It was even set in a culturally interesting milieu.

Of course, we still weren’t convinced,  A twenty-one-year-old might not have been affected by the full brunt of the texting-centric social culture, and therefore might have outgrown it.  What we really needed was something written by teens and pre-teens to figure it all out.

Impresiones 2011

Fortunately, we had something to hand, a small volume of prose and verse published by a school called Belgrano Day School in Buenos Aires.  This is an institution very much in the spirit of those we listed among our World’s Most Awesome Schools.

The book in question is entitled Impresiones: A Bilingual Anthology (2011) and is perfect for our purposes because it has prose and verse in both English and Spanish.  It should give us a pretty good idea of whether the people immersed in the texting culture were having any literacy issues (we chose the 2011 edition because the authors are now adults, which means we’re not exposing teens to any particular scrutiny, but they were teens when this was written).

Well… while none of our editors decided they had to give up literature forever after reading this, the writing, on a sentence and grammar level, is all very good.  Even in those stories written in English (remember that these are students whose first language is Spanish) were well-written, and seemed to be thought out in English (one of the easy ways to tell when a story was written by a Spanish speaker is that the sentences, while grammatically correct, use a word order that is more typical of Spanish than English–dead giveaway that the writer was translating as he wrote, not thinking the story through in English).

It might be argued that these examples are no use because they’ve been curated.  The anthology was probably the best writing of the year at that particular school, and the woman’s story was an outlier: written by someone who is set on becoming a writer.

Infinite Monkeys With Typewriters

That’s true, of course, but it doesn’t really matter.  You see, it’s always been like that.  Even twenty or fifty years ago, most people wrote like a drunk chimpanzee.  The joke above describes the literary efforts of any given 99% of the population in whichever era you choose to name.  But the fact that the good ones are still good puts any idea that texting obsessively is killing the language.

Which makes sense if you think about it.  There’s a good analogy for this which we don’t remember the source for (if it was you, drop us a comment and well give due credit): Text messaging is like playing catch.  It’s not a rigorous exercise in perfection, but it can’t do the person doing it any harm; after all, it’s still writing, and not everything is ROFL.

So everyone can stop panicking and go back to your political arguments.  We, by the way, are trying to clone Tiberius.  Now THAT was a leader (you can yell at us in the comments, that’s what they’re for).


*All right, we didn’t do a rigorous scientific examination.  We looked at a couple of isolated anecdotic cases.  So sue us.

The Synchronicity of Birds

It seems like this was destined to be a Hitchcock-themed week, even though we didn’t plan it this way.  Our Tuesday post and this one were planned completely separately, but there is no denying that Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock are inextricably linked, so it’s a happy coincidence for those who are fans of both! –Ed.

Daphne Du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier

Most writers would probably kill to write a string of popular best-selling books spanning four decades and be created a Commander of the British Empire for their efforts, but it’s arguable that, in Daphne du Maurier’s case, she might have been better off having written just two books.

du Maurier will always be linked to one of the great novels of the 20th century, the brilliant Rebecca.  Despite modern covers that attempt to fool readers into thinking that the book is aimed at the 50 Shades audience, or possibly the crowd that prefers tamer romances, this one is not a piece of entertaining fluff.  It’s a mature, unflinching look at adults who are less than perfect, but who do what they must and deal with the consequences as best they can.

Rebecca also contains one of the most memorable (some people say the best) opening lines in literature:  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”… a haunting preview of what is to come and perfect for the novel.

It’s a bit sad that, while attempting to recapture the magic of her first hit, du Maurier focused on the romantic elements of the novel and produced a string of books that has since been completely dismissed by the establishment – with some justification – as mere time-passers not worthy of a second look.


The Birds Film Still

The true tragedy is that the dismissal of her work often extends to Rebecca itself (which is both ignorant and unforgivable) and to her other noteworthy book: The Birds and Other Stories.

That du Maurier was a master of suspense is clearly evident from the fact that Alfred Hitchcock decided to film no less than three of her tales:  The Birds, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca – and it’s arguable that The Birds is Hitchcock’s most famous film (although, admittedly, he has so many that it could be quite an argument!).  Nevertheless, that’s not the way she’s remembered, and most people wouldn’t be able to connect The Birds with her at all.

It’s their loss.

Originally published as The Apple Tree, the title was changed and the book was reissued as a companion to the film in 1963… and it’s well worth reading.

It’s a book that clearly shows that du Maurier was wasting her time with romance.  While love interests were fine to sustain the plot, what she really, truly did well was a kind of weird suspense, a mix of slightly surreal elements that never let the reader understand whether events are caused by natural or supernatural forces, or even if, perhaps, the characters are imagining it all.

It’s a slim book, and has six stories in it, but, with a deft touch, explores everything from adultery to cults with much the same effect as Rebecca, but in bite-sized chunks.  Anyone wanting to learn how to write a modern suspense tale – or wishing to consume one, need look no further.  Even though they are well over a half-century old, they feel perfectly modern (if one overlooks technology, of course).  The prose is that good.

And the title story feels very different from the film… so even if you think you know the tale, you don’t (also interesting to read the original material as Hitchcock did, to see what inspired him about it).

Of course, this review is being written for Classically Educated, so we’d be truly remiss if we failed to mention that a beautiful edition of this one was Published by Easton Press, although we don’t know if it’s currently available (ebay should help if not…).

All in all, we strongly recommend you pop into the local bookstore, buy these two du Maurier books and make a comment to the clerk about how sad it was that she never wrote anything else.  It would be a small white lie, and who knows – you might possibly be starting the restoration of her reputation.

Why I Fight Against Political Correctness – A Very Personal View

no political correctness

Today, Classically Educated’s Editor-In-Chief answers exactly why he’s been so outspoken – sometimes controversially so – against organized expressions of political correctness.  These are his views, and clearly might not reflect that of all our contributors (see here if you happen to doubt that – or read any of Scarlett’s posts).

I am often asked why I react negatively whenever a practicer of the dogma of political correctness pops up.  Those who know who I am and how I think are puzzled by the strength of my feelings towards this.  “After all,” they say, “the PC brigade is merely fighting for things you believe in strongly: freedom and equality regardless of race, gender sexual orientation, etc.  You should be on the bandwagon with a megaphone.”  Even this very blog has a number of female guest bloggers (many more than the men), Bloggers who are notable members of the LBGT community and even people who enjoy Tango!  That clearly shows an open mind.

Well, they’re partially correct.  The stated intentions behind the PC onslaught are good – but jumping on the bandwagon implies looking past certain extremely difficult issues.  I will ignore the obvious agenda-driven stuff (we’ve covered that elsewhere), but will look at the root problem I have with it.

But first, I’d like to see if you can guess which system gave rise to the following phrases:

A) …man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation, and in function of history to which all nations bring their contribution

B) Do not give opinions or advice unless you are asked. Do not tell your troubles to others unless you are sure they want to hear them.

C) It is always more difficult to fight against faith than against knowledge.

D)  Experiment shows that drinking but one small bottle of beer or one glass of wine may impair a man’s driving capacity… Practically all the hit-run fatal accidents are caused by drunken drivers, says Frank A. Goodwin, Massachusetts Registrar of Motor Vehicles.

Weird Car Crash

Let’s see how well you did:

A) Fascism (from an article by Benito Mussolini)

B) Satanism (from the commandments of the Church of Satan)

C) Nazism (Hitler quote)

D) Prohibition (Temperance Movement propaganda pamphlet)

What do all four of these movements (plus communism, populism, Christian Fundamentalism and almost all the other isms you’ll encounter) have in common?  They all believe that the world would be a much better place for all mankind if only people would think the way they do.

They essentially come up with a set of rules to try to tell adults how to think and act that go beyond what the social contract has evolved to look like.  Now, it is understood that society works on the tenet that, if we all agree on something, we make it a law in some way – but that should not extend to thought.

In particular, I am concerned by the tendency of the PC crowd to attack innocent bystanders for not doing enough to promote their agenda.  I’ve been told that being truly colorblind isn’t possible (with which I vehemently disagree), but that even if it was, it isn’t enough. One must actively work to address all inequality inherent in the patriarchy (their silly concept, not mine).  Patently ridiculous – people who peacefully live within the accepted social norms should not be bombarded with internet hatred by weirdos because they aren’t perceived to be doing enough.  That is a violation of individual rights and freedoms which I feel is unacceptable.

The second thing that all these movements have in common is that humor is off-limits.  What I personally enjoyed most about Seth McFarlane’s Oscar show in 2013 was watching the backlash on social media the following day.  The PC crowd went nuts. But then, fledgeling totalitarianisms where aberrant thought is illegal tend to be composed of humorless apparatichiks.  I happen to believe that adults should be allowed to laugh at whatever they want, and that it can still be funny, even if it’s lacking in sensitivity.

Another thing I am completely against is quotas.  Otherwise intelligent people in the PC community swear that they don’t favor quotas, and that quotas are a myth, especially in corporate society.  Perhaps things have changed since I was last employed a World 500 company, but as of 2007, I can say the quota system was running beautifully, and that finding a competent female minority among your candidates was celebrated like a sudden-death touchdown.  They might not always have been the best candidates, mind you, but they were good enough and ticked two boxes at once, allowing you to optimize for talent in the rest of your structure.  Some equal opportunities are more equal than others.

The same thing, of course, has been happening in the literary world, especially in some genres.  There are sad, bored people out there who dedicate their lives to reading tables of contents with a fine-tooth comb to try to see whether women and minorities are acceptably represented (don’t believe me?  Look here).  So editors tend to skew towards the safe call, and tokenism results, often at the cost of quality*, which is unacceptable to me.

On a slightly more technical note, the current PC movement is philosophically based on postmodernism and, even worse, on the utterly ludicrous (and inexplicable even by its own creator) concept of deconstruction.  Now, while I understand that it’s easier to create an army of PC parrots** if you only look at things from a single point of view, exhaustively analyzed, it doesn’t change the fact that things do not exist in a vacuum like ideal gases.  Most objects of criticism need to be understood in many phases, which is why things like critical race theory or feminist criticism can usually be picked apart with little training.  They simply omit too many important factors to be relevant.


Please see original comic on XKCD (plus mouse-over), here

I won’t get into the “postmodernism is dead discussion” other than to say that postmodernism should have been aborted at conception.  Preferably violently.  Of course, modernism had its issues, too, so it’s a thorny question.

Finally, like all totalitarian regimes, PC-Parrotism is trying to tell people what the right way of thinking is.  There is a tendency towards revising history to show more “balance” (I would love to ask a 10th century serf if he felt a balanced view was accurate), a tendency towards progressive education which attempts to level the playing field between the talented and untalented, and any number of other tools attempting to create a “right” way of thinking.

I believe that the only way of of creating people who think correctly is to give them the facts, to teach them all the points of view and the thinking behind them, and to let them go out and figure it out for themselves.  Starting from the conclusion is a stupid way to try to teach stuff – which is probably why it only occurs in the social “sciences”.

Of course, this is all open to discussion.  Context is important.  The last time I called Prohibition the dumbest thing ever invented until the PC movement, I was told that, in the context of post Civil War and WWI America, many men were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress, and drinking was a real problem.

Perhaps, but removing a pleasurable experience for every other adult in the country on those grounds seems unacceptable.  Individual freedom is too valuable to sacrifice on the altar even of something so important.

If I’d been alive back then, I would have invited them to discuss the issue over a nice drink.

Hmm.  I probably would have gotten in trouble even without the internet…

* In my particular case, this works in my favor, as no one would confuse my name with that of a random white guy.  But I still HATE it.

**Called that way because most of its proponents are simply repeating empty phrases that sound good to people without critical faculties.

Ignorance as a Point of View

Astrology Cartoon

I was talking to an acquaintance recently, and was amazed and more than a little dismayed when she said “Astrology is a science, just like math.”  When I expressed my utter disbelief that anyone with even a smattering of education could possibly utter such a statement in the 21st century, she dismissed me as closed-minded and, safe in the knowledge that a majority of society would back her on that point, spoke about other things.

Never has, in my opinion, the modern iteration of ignorance been so eloquently expressed.

So, in order to learn about the people who share these modern times with us, let’s dissect the incident:

Astrology is a science

Well, one thing that astrology is NOT is a science.  To summarize centuries of development, science is a process by which hypothesis are tested via empirical data and then the theory is modified to fit the data.  As anyone objective can easily see, astrology works precisely opposite.  The results are given first (Scorpios kick babies, prefer to drink white wines and are only compatible with Gemini) and then the data is peered at through distorting lenses to make it seem like it fits.  It is much more akin to a religion than a science.  Wikipedia calls it a pseudoscience, because it attempts to clothe non-scientific methods within a scientific framework, but I think Wikipedia is being both generous and politically correct (can’t get funding if potential donors are offended).

Funny Fortune Cookie

So when discussing this, the defenders of astrology will say that testing is unnecessary because there are millennia of tradition behind it, and there’s no need to verify further. Er…  Yeah, that would also have worked when Columbus was yammering about the Earth not being flat.

So… why do people insist that it’s a science? Well, despite the growing trendiness of aggressive ignorance disguised as “a democratic right to different points of view”, there is still a feeling in society that science and logic are much more intellectually respectable than spiritualism.  So people lie to themselves (and attempt unsuccessfully to lie to intelligent observers) in order to feel respected as opposed to the alternative: feeling like ignorant cretins when faced with the raised eyebrow of a respected member of the peer group.  It’s better to dismiss logical arguments as “the limitations of people who think they’re educated” than to just admit that astrology is more of a fun, brain-dead way to spend time – like watching Dancing with the Stars – than anything approaching a science.

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.14.07 AM

Just like math

The discussion of whether mathematics is or isn’t a science probably would have gone over her head, but this article on the topic is simply awesome, especially the bit about Cicadas, so I just had to link it here.

Ok, so that’s the breakdown of her phrase, but the more disturbing bit is her sense of security that society would back her up.  In this case, I tend to agree with her.  That is a bit worrying, and it led me to asking myself why society seems to prefer to support certain ignorant theories and marginalize people who try to debunk them as elitists*

I think the answer is twofold.  In the first place, I’d like to offer the hypothesis that there’s a large correlation between the kind of people who think that astrology is a science and the the kind of people who watch a LOT of TV.  As is pretty evident to even casual viewers, TV content is not designed to stimulate the intellect, but rather to pander to more basic needs: low entertainment, fear-mongering and (particularly relevant in this case) the reinforcement of beliefs.  Now, to meet these needs, even the documentary channels have needed to adapt, as we’ve discussed before.  And if it’s on the Discovery Channel, then it must be true, right**?

The second half of the answer has more to do with how society has evolved in the decades since the second world war.  After the war, society has become obsessed with safety in all forms, be it physical or psychological.  The many have, in their wisdom, decided that freedom is less important that safety (see: mandatory helmet laws, myriad).  Even feelings are to be preserved…  if someone hurts your feelings, they are in the wrong, and therefore “safe places” need to be created where they can’t do so.

As educated, intelligent people are a minority, their opinions are normally dismissed as elitist, which immediately equates them with such immoral bastards as the filthy rich*.  So, to protect themselves from feelings of inferiority, the mob has made astrology a socially accepted topic – and mocking astrology the province of evil, “limited” people who can’t see beyond what their senses tell me.  So, once again, we decide what is scientifically correct by democracy***.

Is it just me, or should an educated society work in precisely the opposite way?

*Please note that here at Classically Educated, we consider the word “elite” to be a compliment, definitely not an insult.  If you are reading this, and feel that being elite is bad, you probably landed on this site by mistake!  We also oppose the discrimination against rich people – in fact, we oppose discrimination against any minority… fortunately, dumb people are not a minority, so you’re good there.

**This footnote isn’t actually linked to anything in particular, but I just had to mention traditional remedies.  All I have to say about that is that most ancient societies had life spans of about thirty years.  I am certain you are intelligent enough to draw your own conclusions about traditional medicine from that fact, and I don’t have to give you any further subtle hints.

***Can we vote to repeal the law of gravity?  Hover cars sound way cool.

Et in Arcadia Ego

John Reinhard Weguelin: A Pastoral (1905)

Whenever anyone asks me if I’d live in a certain place, I generally pause for a second and try to understand the type of city on offer before responding.  Over the years, I have found that my honest answers tend to gravitate towards two extremes: places like New York and places like Ysbyty Ifan*.

Essentially, this seems to mean that I enjoy living in huge megacities or in tiny villages or rural towns with not much in between.  The megacities, require little explanation.  You’ll have decent museums, opera, retail and basically everything else civilized life requires (even bidets in many cases) at a world-class level.  Normally, these cities are the repository of national treasures or at least the best stuff in each country.  The art museums in New York or Paris are much better than the ones in Chicago or Lyon (and yes, I am aware of the Art Institute).  Likewise the rest of the cultural, gastronomic and retail experience – not to mention the fact that most companies you’d want to work for have offices in the bigger cities.  And the megacities are immensely cosmopolitan, while medium-sized towns only think they’re sophisticated.

So, medium-sized cities are out, then, but why this preference for the smaller places?  How come I’d happily spend my days staring at a stream in some village whose location in the English countryside only makes sense as a medieval watering hole for horses, or alongside lake Como, or in a French agricultural town?

The people who criticize me most, of course, are those that live in San Francisco, as they think everyone should like it as much as they do.  The fact that I don’t, and that I think it’s a bit too American and not global enough leads to anger, which turns to disbelieving rage when I then turn around and admit that I’d happily live in a village whose inhabitants might not even have heard of the concept of passports and other countries.

But life without amenities only works if you truly strip everything to the bare bones.  Medium sized cities have all of the frustrations of the large ones without the benefits.  I always thought that that was the reason behind the extreme nature of my preferences.

But upon further analysis, it becomes evident that humans have always been looking for that lost pastoral paradise, and it is a recurring theme in everything from religion to secular art.

The most obvious example, of course, is the Garden of Eden.  As a species, it’s pretty clear that humans have felt overwhelmed by the frantic pace of modern life and the loss of innocence ever since Mesopotamian times (the Eden myth has it roots in an earlier mesopotamian legend).  Though little recorded evidence has been left behind, it’s easy to imagine ancient Babylonians complaining about them newfangled sails: “If Marduk had intended Man to navigate without rowing, he wouldn’t have invented slaves, I tell you!”

Claude Lorraine: Pastoral Landscape

It never stopped.  In classical antiquity, the name of the pastoral Greek region of Arcadia was borrowed to represent a back-to-nature utopia, and it informed quite a bit of renaissance art.  William Shakespeare, of course, famously used a pastoral setting in his comedy As You Like It, which idealizes the throwing off of the chains of court life for a country setting – in fact, many of The Bard’s romantic scenes take place out in the boondocks somewhere.

After Shakespeare, the Pastoral movement in art and literature had its ups and downs in Western culture, but survived to the end of the 19th century – even unto that ultimate loss of European innocence, the Great War.

Cotswold Village

World War I effectively ended the tradition, but added even more of a sense of loss to modern elegies – it marked the end of nobility as a social structure, with all that that implied.  We’ve gone into this before when dealing with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but the search for simpler times in the twentieth century went far deeper than just a few Oxford laments or Finzi-Continis.  Hippies were essentially pastoralists trying to shoehorn their anxiety about modern complexity into 1960s cities (which explains their failure to gain much traction among “regular” people in the US who were involved in a clash of civilizations with a still-strong Soviet Union).

Postmodern pastoralism is, of course, dismissed by modern philosophers as a delusion for the privileged (or perhaps a privilege of the deluded).  It’s intimately tied to the image of German bankers taking their helicopter to their French chateau retreat – or English lords driving their Range Rovers away from Parliament and into the mile-long drive of their stately manor.

Unlike the philosophers, I find both of these options admirable**, but I would actually go one step further and remove the bank or Parliament altogether.  If you’re going to aim for a relaxed existence, why bother with the distractions (yes, I know it may be necessary to rob an armored car in order to gain the capital to allow this, but today, let’s forget both minutiae and morality).

Even more than the economics and decadence, I believe that postmodernism frowns upon this because having an appreciation for the Pastoral implies both the sophistication to understand what that ideal means and the willingness to throw off socialist ideals of urban life and egalitarianism.  Anyone who can both choose and afford to remove themselves from the urban tapestry of enlightened society is clearly a dangerous non-systemic element…

Most readers of this blog DO fall into that category anyway.  And while your budget may not stretch to that chateau, there’s nothing wrong with a thatched cottage in the Cotswolds or a nice stone house in Champagne when you tire of the hustle and bustle of Shanghai or Sao Paulo.

And if anyone looks at you askance, just tell them that a whole bunch of renaissance painters, plus Shakespeare agree with you.

*It’s in Wales, if you were wondering.

**If this offends you, you should really have read the Classically Educated Manifesto before reading the article…

Empire State of Artistic Mind

New York City Skyline

So, our Editor-In-Chief has just returned from a trip to New York… it was pretty obvious that he was going to write stuff for the page.  His first delivery is a slightly elitist take not only on art museums, but specifically on which art museums.  A phrase about leopards and spots comes to mind.

When I got back from my recent New York vacation, a friend who’s never been to the Big Apple asked me: “Other than just walking around the city, what is there to do in New York?”

Talk about a loaded question.

In the first place, “just walking around the city” should be more than enough for essentially anyone.  This is a city that, if you avoid the tourist traps such as Times Square, or the Statue of Liberty cruise, is extremely rewarding.  Culture, be it art, literature, history or any other expression is there to be found, often even if you are a brain-dead tourist who tries to avoid it.  Any house on Museum Mile is likely to be an art gallery – even if it doesn’t really advertise the fact.  The Strand is an amazing experience, and if you happen to land in Times Square by mistake, the theater overflows onto the street.

But my first instinct when answering was: the art museums.  There’s MoMA and the Met, of course, but also countless others.  The Whitney, The Frick and the Neue Galirie spring to mind immediately… but there are still others.

But what if we had to pick just one?  And what if, hypothetically, you had to pick it according to Classically Educated’s Manifesto, so you could write an article about it?

Even more loaded than the last one!

But we’ll give it a shot.  And we’ll make it a top five list, just because people on the internet like top five lists.

Gustav Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer

5. Despite the fact that Gustav Klimt is well represented – by the famous, stolen-and-recovered-and-sued-for-and-recovered-again portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer, and that the gallery is located almost perfectly, the Neue Galerie is still a bit limited in scope.  Cool, but very small, only good enough for fifth place on our list, just edging out the Morgan Library museum, and the unexpected collection at Kykuit and well ahead of the Brooklyn Museum.

Whitney Museum New Building

4.  The Whitney.  4th place might be a bit unfair to this icon of American art, as, had I waited until 2015, I could have spoken about the museum in its new building at the southern tip of High Line Park.  But as it wasn’t yet done at the time of writing, we’ll acknowledge the quirkiness of the special exhibits here (Kusama being a particular favorite) with 4th place.

Edgar Degas Ballerina at the Met

3. The Met.  Wow, I can hear the cultured from all over the world complaining already.  How can the Met be third?  Well, it is.  It’s an amazing museum, built on the scale and philosophy of the Louvre in Paris, with the added benefit of an impressive Impressionist collection, which the Louvre doesn’t really have. But… apart from not having that inexplicable Pyramid entry, the Met has a bit too much mass appeal to get any further than third on our list.  Which just goes to show how good the art museums in New York truly are.

Frick Collection Interior

2.  The Frick Collection.  While the collection itself is small, and not particularly impactful compared to the others on this list, the Frick deserves its place among our favorites for various reasons.  The first is that the house it is located in is perfect gilded-age elegance, uncompromising in the sense that money exists to be enjoyed, without guilt and to the fullest extent.  It is a beautiful place.  The art is good, too, with Whistler, Goya and Velázquez on the walls.  It can’t be first, but it is the one that makes us point and say: that is how it should be done.

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

1. MoMA.  OK, so once the Met was out, this one was always going to win, but still requires some explanation.  Classically Educated is supposed to be all about the classics, after all – and the collection here is late 19th century at its oldest point.  But the thing is, if you go off to look for a polymath with gently elitist tendencies, it’s more likely that you’ll find him hanging around in this museum than any of the others on the list.  So, something about this museum makes it a haven for our target audience.  What?  Well, for one thing, it’s eclectic – you need to be able to appreciate painting and photography and graphic design and industrial design to truly enjoy this one.  For another, you need to be grounded sufficiently in art theory to have an appreciation of the conversation that is constantly going on regarding the definition and limits of art.  These two characteristics make it our kind of art museum – but what truly seals its position is the fact that there it is: Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, hanging on its own wall.  When you have the best impressionist painting, you have an insurmountable advantage.

Disagree?  Of course you do.  That’s what the comments section is for…  Also, liking us on Facebook means you won’t miss any posts!

Toilet Paper: An American Love Story

Well, we DID say it would be eclectic…  you can’t accuse us of not having warned you!–Ed.*

Upon visiting the US, a foreign visitor is immediately struck by how all things that can make life more comfortable or pleasant are immediately available, from glazed donuts to those pillows you need so that your head doesn’t flop around when trying to sleep on airplane seats.

It is quite clear that Americans enjoy being comfortable – decadently so, if possible.

The visitor will note this and nod in approval.  It is a good thing to have one’s creature comforts looked after.  In fact, it would be good to take it back to his own country.  He takes notes.  He understands why America is an important world power, and why immigrants, both legal and of the humid dorsal variety flock to it’s shores.  He understands all this while purchasing an electric griddle.

Sadly, as soon as he decides to go to the bathroom – possibly from eating all those glazed donuts – he realizes that it’s all a facade, and takes the first available flight back to civilization.

“Why?” one asks.

It’s quite simple.  The one basic creature comfort that isn’t readily available in the US is the bidet…  and as most readers of this blog will be aware, civilized life simply isn’t possible when that particular implement is lacking.

But why is is so rare on those shores?

Well, one theory is that, since it was invented by the French (originally used by French royalty in fact), it was rejected by the British, which, as we recall were influential in America in the early 1700s.  This would mark one of the few instances in which the British Empire was unable to adopt and improve upon a foreign custom, and seems a bit of a flimsy excuse.  After all, a culture that adopted tea as the national drink despite its not growing within a thousand miles of its shores seems not to be the best candidate for not-invented-here syndrome.

So, perhaps it’s a technical thing.  Perhaps scraping with toilet paper is better than washing?

Er… read the above line again.  If you are unable to spot the problem, then you are quite blessed: from now on, you can save a fortune on water by never showering again in your life; all you have to do is to give yourself a good rub with toilet paper once a day, and you’re good to go.  Clearly, that isn’t it either.

So what could cause a culture that has warmly embraced everything from Ikea furniture to the idea that fish is better raw to shy away from something that could make everyone’s life better?

One guesses that it has to be sex.

Even today, upon viewing the Wikipedia entry for bidet, one is immediately struck by the article’s statement that the bidet’s primary function is to cleanse genitalia.

Hmm.  Now why would houses with perfectly good showers need an extra apparatus to cleanse genitalia?  I think we may have spotted a myth here. The truth is, bidets are mainly used for the same thing that the toilet roll beside a toilet is used for in the US: to sanitize after going to the bathroom.  The only difference is that water is better for the purpose, as well as being much more pleasant.

The wikipedia article, however, is just the continuation of a long-held myth: that the bidet exists exclusively for couples to clean up before / after sex, and is therefore somehow kinky or perverted.  It’s gotten so bad that people just don’t question it any more.

So, essentially, the most important industrialized country is doomed to scrapes and discomfort for no reason other than prudishness dating back to the 17th century.

Interesting world we live in, isn’t it?

*And we could have illustrated this article…  and now we wonder how far one has to go before WordPress just tosses us out?

Classically Educated: Greatest Hits Volume I

Classical Columns

One of the nice things about being able to see the numbers on a blog as eclectic as this one is that you never really know what is going to resonate with readers.  Sometimes, a post goes up which looks like it will immediately become popular… and it disappears without a trace.  Others look less likely to attract a wide audience, and they work well.  And then there are the ones that don’t attract much immediate readership but keep getting visited, time and time again by people in the most unlikely locations.

When the blog started, most of our traffic came from direct referrals and our Fan Page, but more and more, we’re seeing most of the traffic arriving from search engines and simply people who stumbled on us, read the manifesto, liked what they saw, and pop back occasionally.

Guest posts are always popular… but then, so are posts by the CE team, so no clue there!

So, without further ado, we are proud to present the most popular posts from our first half-year of life:

10: (Tie) Aerobics for my Brain and What the Reading of Blake’s Poetry Awoke in Me.  These two epitomize what Classically Educated stands for.  The first is about the mental gymnastics of traveling to a new place… while the second delves into literature, and the sensations it inspires.

9: On words, as they relate to worldview.  A bit of a rant, a bit of philosophy, and a post which asks questions about differing types of human nature.  Of course, the answers probably lie within us!

8: Tango: The Forgotten Argentine Passion. The first in a series of Tango articles that made the list, and which gives one view of how the dance is seen in more modern days.


7: PC Runs Amok in Science Fiction Community.  Yes, we know that, depending on your worldview, political correctness is either running amok everywhere, or there isn’t really enough of it to protect the disenfranchised.  But even the most die-hard believer will have a giggle at the silliness that is PC insanity in the tiny Science Fiction Community. It is much harder to take earnest, holier-than-thou, PC preaching seriously when the person doing it writes about goblins…

6: A New Model For the Publishing Business?  More literature in CE…  A lot of the posts on this list have to do with the letters, despite this kind of post not being all that frequent.  Probably says something about our readers!

5: A Trip To New York on Hydrogen Wings.  It Was Just One of Those Things.  Admit it.  Everyone is fascinated by airships and especially the transatlantic Zeppelins of the thirties.  OK, don’t admit it, but this guest post is eternally popular, which is proof enough for us!


4: Tango For Export.  The second half of the Tango series deals with the dance outside the borders of Argentina, and gives a good overview of what to expect if you ever come into contact with it.  The fact that it remains popular will likely mean many new dances in the short term!

3: Bad Management Fads – A Classically Educated List.  Well, Scott Adams sells a ton of Dilbert material, so it’s not really surprising that this one makes the list.  The corporate world has done a LOT of stupid in its history, and that is reflected here.  Plus, people love lists.

2: 10 Reasons why it Sucks to Be Single, Female and Smart.  This masterpiece of reality and rueful laughter hits the nail on the head better than anything that Bridget Jones may have said or done. Guest poster Scarlett just knows her stuff. Plus, people love lists, as we have mentioned.  They also seem to love romance columns.


Driving home after the party

1: Party Like it’s 1925.  We like to think that this one is on top because it epitomizes everything good about Classically Educated’s readership: they are smart, well-educated, interested in history, and have a bit of a dark and twisted sense of humor.  Also, they are irreverent, and likely to march to their own drummers.  Plus, of course, people love lists.


Looking over the list now, it’s clear that the initial objectives – eclecticism, interesting articles, and use of the Harvard comma – have been achieved.  But, as always, opinions to the contrary are welcome!